What would you do if you saw a little old lady with a cane walking slowly across a busy street without remembering to look both ways? Most people would answer that they would run out into the street to save her. However, why would these people do this? The rescuer may have not had any relation whatsoever to the little old lady, yet they still decide to risk their life for her. Was it because of basic, natural instinct? Did the rescuer just instantly react to what he/she saw and just let his reaction take over his body? On the other hand, did the rescuer think very quickly using reasoning about what he was going to do about the situation?
Was he thinking that he should do this because it will make him feel better since he saved someones life, in turn making him a hero? Or did he do this action for the sake of morality alone? These things might not seem be thought about by someone in times of those kinds of situations, but they are whether you realize it or not. In Immanuel Kants work, entitled Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, he talks about why the will and freedom are central in order to make a moral decision or commit a moral action, and how the categorical imperative governs an individuals actions. Everybody that breathes in oxygen has a will.
A will is some type of motivation, whether it is good or bad, to commit some type of action. The type of action one commits depends on the type of will, or desire, the person has. Kant believes that the one thing in the world that is unambiguously good is the good will. Even if this good will fails to bring about positive, or good, results, it is still considered good since its motivation was good. Because of this, Kant believes that in order to commit a true moral action, one must not do it in order to achieve some thing or some outcome. Instead, one should do it for the sake of the moral law itself.
One might think that a good will is easy to obtain since all one has to do is just do it for the moral law in itself and nothing else. However, in order to do this, one must have complete freedom. By this, Kant does not mean freedom to do anything we want, or freedom from oppression, or anything like that. On the other hand, Kant implies that we need to have complete freedom in the sense that we are free from all external determinations. He believes that it is impossible for someone to commit a moral duty if that person already has prior external knowledge about it.
This is because the person will not be reasoning on his own about his action, rather he/she will be using the reasoning of another person who has already done such an action. In addition, reason, to Kant, is the function that will bring about a will that is good in itself, as opposed to good for some particular purpose. In Kants eyes, reason is directly correlated with morals and ideals. Actions of any sort, he believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty dictated by reason, and no action performed for appropriateness or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral.
A moral act is an act done for the “right” reasons. Kant would argue that to make a promise for the wrong reason is not moral so you might as well not make the promise. One must have a duty code inside of themselves or it will not come through in their actions otherwise. Ones reasoning ability will always allow he/she to know what their duty is. Kant described two types of common commands given by reason: the hypothetical imperative, which dictates a given course of action to reach a specific end; and the categorical imperative, which dictates a course of action that must be followed because of its rightness and necessity.
The categorical imperative is the basis of morality and was stated by Kant in these words: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will and general natural law. (pg. 16) Therefore, before proceeding to act, you must decide what rule you would be following if you were to act, whether you are willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all over. If you are willing to universalize the act, it must be moral; if you are not, then the act is morally impermissible. Kant believes that moral rules have no exceptions.
Therefore, it is wrong to kill in all situations, even those of self-defense. Since we would never want murder to become a universal law, then it must be not moral in all situations. Kant believes killing could never be universal; therefore, it is wrong in every situation. There are never any extenuating circumstances, such as self-defense. The act is either wrong or right, based on his universality law. For example, giving money to a beggar just to get him to leave you alone would be judged not moral by Kant because it was done for the wrong reason.
Kant’s categorical imperative has three propositions that must be met in order for the action or duty to be truly moral. The first one says that actions are genuinely good when they are undertaken for the sake of duty alone. For example, many people may help others because it gives them pleasure to spread happiness to other people. However, this would not be considered a moral duty according to Kant. Instead, he believes that a more genuine example would be someone who feels no charitable inclination, but rather works to help others because he or she recognizes that it is his duty to do so.
The second proposition states, An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined. (pgs. 12-13) What Kant means by this proposition is that although one may reach a positive outcome, it may not necessarily be moral because the principle of volition might have been wrong. One must first have a moral desire, or will, before one can commit a moral duty.
The last proposition, which follows from the other two, states, Duty is the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law. (p. 13) Kant goes on to explain what he means of this proposition by saying that one can have an inclination for an object as the effect of his/her proposed action; but one can never have respect for such an object, just because it is merely an effect and is not an activity of the will. An object of respect must not serve ones inclination; rather it should exclude it from considering when a choice is being made.
What Kant means by all this is that because an action done from duty must exclude altogether the influence of inclination and every object of the will, then the only thing left to determine the will is the law itself and respect for the law. In order for one to commit a moral duty, one must always follow these three propositions, according to Kant. By not properly following them to the fullest extent, ones actions are not considered truly moral, even if the outcome is good.
However there are things about Kants philosophy that I do not completely agree with. I would completely agree with Kant and all his principles providing we were living in a perfect world. However, the world we live in today makes it nearly impossible to apply Kants theories. Kant is wonderful in principle, but in practice, his principles fall apart. Morality is too complex and cannot be simplified in such a way as Kant has simplified it. He allows no exceptions, which is commendable, yet unrealistic.
Aside from its simplicity, the main difficulty I have with Kants theory is that it takes away our human character. By ignoring individuals, circumstance, and emotions, Kant takes away our humanity and individuality. While in attempt to preserve individualism and dignity, Kant ironically violates this directly. He asks us to think on our own two feet and to use our own reason, but at the same time, he asks us to follow his laws and principles. How can we be using our own logic, while we are following his?
We are limited to his guidelines, therefore violating individual thinking, which is what he encourages. Kants process of weighing morality seems to be emotionless, and without emotions, we are robots. Feelings are the main identity of our species. Reason can only take us so far. The final criticism that I have of Kant is his ignorance of variations of reason. Everyone does not reason in the same way. For instance, what if someone hated technology and wanted to rid the world of computers. Apply the categorical imperative to this situation.
Would it be reasonable for everyone to smash his or her computer? For an anti-technology person, this universal law is practical. It accomplishes their goal of ridding the world of computers. This abuse of the categorical imperative may come in many forms. Although I have many criticisms of Kant, he makes a strong argument, which is why people still follow his philosophy today. He presents clear and sensible explanations of good will. However, his absolute statements may be his strongest point or his greatest downfall.